siem reap town – Cambodia’s new National Assembly convened amid deadly violence, glittering pageantry and continuing political crisis Thursday as a spectacular swearing- in ceremony at Angkor Wat was overshadowed by an early-morning rocket attack on a CPP motorcade.
After the formal convening of the Assembly by King Norodom Sihanouk at his royal residence, the parliamentarians posed for photos and then piled into Land Cruisers and tour buses to head for the world famous temples, the symbol of Cambodian culture.
There, dressed in traditional green k’ben costumes, the lawmakers repeated the oath of office after senior monks on the steps of the ancient Khmer capital. The saffron-robed clergy chanted mantras, sounded a sacred horn and showered the new parliamentarians with jasmine and holy water in front of an altar with burning incense.
But minutes after the solemn ceremony ended, as lawmakers, diplomats and journalists were mingling in the shadow of the famous towers, a helicopter roared to a landing in front of the temple.
Second Prime Minister Hun Sen was hustled inside and whisked back to his hotel, apparently not trusting even his heavily guarded convoy after the early- morning attack, which he said was an attempt on his life.
His abrupt departure at the end of the swearing-in highlighted the tension that has been escalating since the July 26 elections. And though many praised Thursday’s expression of Cambodian culture, several opposition figures said it did little to change the political deadlock that has expressed itself in fiery rhetoric, street protests and the threat of arrests of opposition leaders.
“I think today is just a formality. So, we have fulfilled the formalities,” said Sam Rainsy, leader of the self-named second opposition party.
“The real task lies ahead of us, and I think it will not be an easy one,” he said.
The task at hand is to cobble together a new government based on the election results. But that has so far proved difficult, with opposition allies Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party sticking together—to the surprise of many—to deny the CPP the votes it needs to confirm a government.
The two parties claim the CPP won through fraud and intimidation and that the majority of Cambodians want Hun Sen out.
The opposition had threatened for weeks to boycott the Assembly’s opening, denying it a quorum. They agreed to attend in response to a request from King Norodom Sihanouk after Hun Sen warned that some opposition leaders might be arrested on incitement-to-violence charges if they did not have parliamentary immunity.
The three parties are now preparing for coalition negotiations that are to begin next week, in a tentative step forward reached at a summit chaired by King Sihanouk on Tuesday.
Many worried Thursday that the rocket attack, coming on the very day that the political parties vowed to put aside their differences and celebrate cultural unity, would plunge Cambodia deeper into political crisis and would further sour the atmosphere for negotiations.
“It can only hurt efforts to achieve political reconciliation,” US Ambassador Kenneth Quinn said of the attack.
However, CPP officials seemed upbeat about the prospects for a new government.
“I think everything is possible….Today’s meeting can lead to a solution for the crisis,” said CPP lawmaker Mom Chhim Huy of Kandal province. “Every issue can be solved if Khmers are united for the sake of the nation.”
Keat Chhon, the current minister of finance who was sworn in for his second Assembly term Thursday, also voiced optimism about the upcoming negotiations.
“There is movement forward, I hope we can move that way,” he said at a reception with diplomats and the King after the Angkor Wat ceremony.
Hun Sen did not attend the reception.
The second premier has said his first choice is a coalition with Funcinpec, with the Sam Rainsy Party serving as opposition. But so far, the two parties, which were at best loosely associated before the election, have been united against their common foe.
Funcinpec parliamentarian Ahmad Yahya implied at Thursday’s swearing-in that his party is not sure it can trust the CPP to make good on any promises made in the coalition negotiations.
“The meeting today is good for the nation, but when you swear an oath, is it implemented or not?” he said. “Some people do not always keep their promises under oath.”
A main problem for Funcinpec seems to be mistrust of the CPP and especially Hun Sen. The two parties shared power in an uneasy coalition after the last elections until July 1997, when factional fighting erupted and ended with the ouster of Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh as first prime minister. The prince says Hun Sen staged a military coup. The CPP says its troops acted only to quell Funcinpec-led forces moving to stage their own coup.
Hun Sen has warned that the current government, which he dominates, will continue if there is no coalition deal. But that option may face problems of recognition in the international community.
With no end to the crisis in sight Thursday, King Sihanouk pleaded with all political parties not to allow the political crisis to degenerate into the violence Cambodians have experienced for decades.
“I ask you…to kindly reach an honorable compromise among Khmers, a national reconciliation, an agreement not to return to national division…killings and civil war,” the King said in a statement released as he formally convened the Assembly at his residence in Siem Reap.
“May our eminent representatives not lose sight of the fact that our people first and foremost are claiming peace with freedom,” the King wrote.